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By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 26, 2010

On Philadelphia's Independence Mall, the story of the nation's founding might seem like an all-too-familiar tale.

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The CliffsNotes version goes like this: Independence Hall is where the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Liberty Bell, cracks and all, became a symbol of the abolitionist movement and of efforts to attain freedom around the globe.

In the past decade, the historical events embodied by these icons have gained new context as the Liberty Bell moved to its own interpretive center and a museum dedicated to explaining the Constitution opened at the northern end of the mall. Now several new attractions on or adjacent to the mall are adding their own chapters, some with unexpected twists, to the traditional understanding of American freedoms and how they came to be.

The National Museum of American Jewish History, affiliated with the Smithsonian, opens its dazzling new home on the mall to the public today. The President's House commemorative site, on the spot where presidents George Washington and John Adams, as well as nine enslaved African Americans, lived before the nation's capital was moved to Washington, is set to open Dec. 15. A 15-minute 3-D film, "Liberty 360," premiered this fall in a theater across from Independence Hall and offers yet another perspective on the goings-on that led to the nation's founding.

By far the most significant addition to the historic area is the $150 million Jewish history museum. The 100,000-square-foot facility, by the same architect who designed the Newseum in the Washington, traces the journey of Jews in the United States from the arrival of the first Jewish settlers from Brazil in 1654 to the present day.

The museum seeks to place the Jewish experience, including struggles to find acceptance in the New World, in the context of what was happening in politics, business, science and culture around the globe.

On each floor of the five-story building, vantage points offer sweeping views of Independence Mall, further establishing a visual link to the more famous monuments. Two sculptures - a 19th-century marble monument called "Religious Liberty," just outside the striking contemporary building, and the 21st-century LED "Beacon" that flickers at the top corner of the museum's glass facade - seek to underline the idea that the Jews' quest for freedom was intertwined with the larger American story.

Inside, the museum spotlights prominent American Jews as well as lesser-known figures such as 19th-century pioneers Fanny and Julius Brooks, whose journey westward is brought to life with a covered wagon, period clothing for children to try on and a virtual campfire.

The Only in America Gallery Hall of Fame spotlights 18 honorees, including Broadway composer Irving Berlin, polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk, cosmetics titan Estee Lauder, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and uber-entertainer Barbra Streisand, with specially produced video testimonials paired with artifacts, such as Berlin's upright piano and Streisand's costumes from "Yentl."

Elsewhere, short films focus on Yiddish theater, Hollywood moguls, the civil rights movement and the creation of the state of Israel.

The museum follows a timeline, beginning on the fourth floor with the Colonial period and winding its way down to the current era on the second floor.

In one section, you can relive the immigrant experience by tapping a touch-screen with various identification documents and trying to answer questions that federal officials posed to new arrivals. In another area, old-fashioned school desks represent tenement life, and black-and-white video footage coupled with purple lights conjures up a fancy-dress Jewish Heritage Ball from 1871.

For me, exhibits spanning the latter half of the 20th century seemed especially relevant: the ones about the Jews' shift from cities to suburbs, the summer camp phenomenon, the bar mitzvah tradition, the Borscht Belt and varying views of Jewish life as interpreted by "Seinfeld," "All in the Family," comedian Sarah Silverman and others.

In the Contemporary Issues Forum, you can weigh in on various hot-button questions, such as "Should religion play a role in American politics?" by sharing your views on Post It-style notes, which are then scanned and posted on screens.

Finally, you can add your own historical footnote in "It's Your Story," where you can tape a short vignette on family traditions, where your ancestors were born and other topics.

Scheduled to open in several weeks next to the Liberty Bell Center at Sixth and Market streets, "President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation" is a series of permanent structures and videos meant to evoke the executive mansion that Washington and Adams used. Although the actual house was razed in 1832, the site includes window wells through which you can see the original foundations; a bow window drawn by Washington that's thought to be the inspiration for the Oval Office in the White House; and a passage linking the main house to the slave quarters. The nine slaves believed to have worked in the house are honored by a glass-and-wood installation at the rear of the site.

The development of that presentation was not without controversy. Officials from the city and Independence National Historical Park and African American activists wrestled with how to put slavery into context in a place synonymous with liberty.

On a lighter note, the new 3-D "Liberty 360" film doesn't break new ground with its storytelling. But the in-the-round experience offers a highly accessible point of entry before you delve into the more complex issues of freedom and justice.

DiGiacomo is co-founder of TheCityTraveler.com.


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